Bulls' defense struggles without Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine carries offense in loss to Pacers

Bulls' defense struggles without Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine carries offense in loss to Pacers

Wendell Carter Jr. deserves a raise. So does Zach LaVine.

And Lauri Markkanen, who is playing through a sprained left ankle, may deserve a day off.

That’s the Bulls’ sixth straight loss in a nutshell, this one a 116-105 defeat to a Pacers team without Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.

Despite LaVine’s 43 points, the Bulls are a season-worst 13 games under .500 and are both five games out of the playoffs and five games above the league’s worst record (and best odds at winning the draft lottery).

The Bulls now have played two full games since losing Carter for four-to-six weeks with a sprained right ankle. They allowed 44 third-quarter points on Wednesday in New Orleans and watched the Pacers shoot 57.1 percent while posting a ridiculous 70-36 edge in points in the paint.

“Myles Turner played a great game,” LaVine said of Turner's 27 points and 14 rebounds. “We switched. He shot over the top of us. We were in our blitz. He rolled. We missed assignments on defense that gave him easy buckets. You can’t give them easy buckets. Our margin of error isn’t that big.”

Apparently, LaVine didn’t limit his on-target marksmanship for his on-court performance.

No, the Bulls’ margin of error isn’t that big, which is why the Bulls must consider limiting their aggressive, blitzing defense now that their best defender is beginning an extended absence. Daniel Gafford said he’s ready to imitate Carter because he played a similar style at Arkansas. But he’s a rookie.

Coach Jim Boylen said he wouldn’t change his approach — but then ended up switching more pick-and-rolls in the fourth. All that led to was guards and wings attacking bigger defenders — most often Markkanen — at the rim.

“We were concerned about that,” Boylen admitted. “They did that to us in Indiana earlier in the year when Brogdon was playing. And I thought the younger Holiday did a good job of that.”

That would be former Bull Justin’s younger brother Aaron, who finished with 19 points and eight assists.

“We’re going to have to adjust a little bit,” LaVine said of the defense. “We’ve done such a good job in it with the No. 1 pick-and-roll defense. I don’t even think teams are playing as much pick-and-roll. They’re advancing the ball and hitting the roller or they’re skipping it and playing 2-on-1 on the backside. We’ve done such a good job in it. We have to continue to play it. I think if that’s our scheme and that’s what they tell us to do, that’s what we gotta do.”

The Bulls’ defensive scheme is good for forcing turnovers but bad for disciplined teams who get multiple corner 3-point attempts or shots at the rim because of it. That was the case even with Carter playing.

LaVine looked inward.

“We give up points in the paint in general,” he said. “It’s going to hurt having Wendell out. But it’s been a problem of ours since the get-go. We give up easy baskets. A lot of that is on us missing assignments. We gotta do better.”

LaVine bolstered his All-Star chances with a sublime offensive performance. He sank eight 3-pointers. At one point, he scored 20 straight points for the Bulls, even though he didn’t know that until afterward.

Seemingly every game now, particularly with Markkanen hobbled, LaVine is answering whether he’s tired from carrying such a large burden offensively.

“It’s my job man,” he said. “I recognize when we’re down, we need a scoring outburst. I’m trying to help us win and play the right way.”

Along those lines, LaVine missed a crucial boxout on T.J. Warren with 1 minute, 42 seconds left and the Bulls down six. Warren’s putback pushed the Pacers’ lead back to eight.

“I got caught in between the slasher and he was on the backside. Once the shot went up, I stood there. I didn’t know he was going to crash. I messed it up and it was a big play,” LaVine said. “I’m trying to do my best. I’m going to make some mistakes. But I’m going to try to make up for them too.”

Added Boylen: “He understands his ability to score and play at an elite level is going to be defined by winning too. He gets that. We’ll look at those plays and coach our way through with him.”

Markkanen, as is his nature, downplayed his ankle. But it’s swollen and discolored and he only attempted three shots in the first half before finishing with nine attempts and 11 points.

“I’m not thinking about it during the game. I’m sure some movements are not as explosive as normal,” he said. “I have a choice. I want to play and help this team. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Both Boylen and LaVine praised Markkanen for exhibiting toughness. LaVine called it “selfless.”

“I’m proud of Lauri,” Boylen said. “He’s doing the best he can. He’s fighting through. I think he has matured. If he can give you anything, he’ll play. And I think that’s great growth for him. It’s part of what we’re building here. You do anything you can to help the team. If you can help it, even if you’re hurting, you still try. He’s doing that. He hasn’t made one excuse. He hasn’t pouted. He hasn’t asked to come out. He has played through a pretty tough sprain.”

And the Bulls are playing through a pretty tough stretch.

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Bulls coach Jim Boylen stumps for Rudy Tomjanovich's Hall of Fame bid

USA Today

Bulls coach Jim Boylen stumps for Rudy Tomjanovich's Hall of Fame bid

In case you forgot, Jim Boylen once worked for Rudy Tomjanovich. In fact, the former Rockets coach gave Boylen his NBA start, hiring him as an assistant coach and video coordinator way back in 1992.

Boylen saw first-hand the coaching chops and commitment Tomjanovich displayed as the Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles while Michael Jordan was playing baseball in the mid-1990s. So it's beyond loyalty when Boylen says he believes, like many others, that Tomjanovich belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The organization named Tomjanovich a finalist over All-Star weekend in Chicago.

[RELATED: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett highlight Hall of Fame finalists]

"He's deserving," Boylen said. "I don't know why he's not in there yet. It doesn't make sense to me. Two championships, a gold medal."

That's a reference to Tomjanovich coaching USA Basketball's gold-medal winning team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Tomjanovich is an occasional visitor to the Advocate Center to watch Boylen.

"What he did with those Rockets teams and his playoff games — sixth seed in '95 — nobody's duplicated that. To win it from the sixth seed, play on the road like we did," Boylen said. "He has an unbelievable record in elimination games, which I think is a true test of your coaching and being able to communicate your message. I think he's getting in."

Does Boylen possess inside information?

"No," Boylen said, smiling. "He's due."

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Injury notes: Latest on Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn

Injury notes: Latest on Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn

Jim Boylen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. spent the majority of their time speaking to media after the team’s first post-All-Star break practice laying a trail of injury-related tea leaves.

Carter has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since Jan. 6, and Porter hasn’t played since spraining his foot on Nov. 6. Both took part in practice (which featured “some contact” according to Boylen) and are inching closer to respective returns, though nothing is official as of yet.

"Otto participated in practice and got his legs underneath him. Wendell, we kinda put him in for two possessions, then take him out for two and kinda getting him back comfortable," Boylen said.

“Just taking it one day at a time,” said Carter, who said on the Friday of All-Star weekend that he was shooting for a return this Thursday (Feb. 20) against the Hornets. “I practiced today and it felt okay, so I'm just taking it slow. Don't want to rush anything, and end up hurting again, so that's where I'm at right now.

“Depending on the coaching staff, depending on how I'm feeling come game time, of course I want to play Thursday, but I'm [going to] do what's best for the team and for myself."

Boylen declined to say officially whether Carter will be available Thursday, also taking a “we’ll see” approach. Carter is about six weeks into his initial four-to-six week recovery timeline.

Porter, who said he’s “close” to 100 percent, doesn’t yet know when he’ll be back and that “time will tell” how many practices he needs before sliding back into the Bulls’ lineup. He remains without a timetable, and said he is unsure if he’ll be eased back in on a minutes restriction when he is able to return.

“I was able to do everything. I feel good,” Porter said. “I’ll continue it a day at a time, making sure my pain is free."

When asked, Boylen said he doesn’t yet have a clear idea of when Lauri Markkanen (who has been out with a pelvis injury since Jan. 24) might return to practice. This Friday marks four weeks into Markkanen’s initial four-to-six week timeline

There was also no update on Kris Dunn on the two-week anniversary of his initial two-week re-examination timeline for a sprained right MCL suffered against the Nets on Jan. 31.

[RELATED: Bulls preparing for possibility of losing Kris Dunn for rest of season]

Still, things are moving in the right direction for the Bulls on the injury front. The team entered the All-Star break on a six-game losing streak that ties a season-high, but Boylen maintained playing competitive basketball down the stretch remains a goal. At 19-36, they will resume play five games behind the Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

“I think doing both, I think that's what our challenge is this year,” Boylen said of the team’s dual objectives of winning and developing. “Part of development is you hope to play in some meaningful games, and we've had a couple of those situations this year compared to last year, and I'm hoping we can have more. I'm hoping.

"Health is part of that and just getting better. I got a good group of guys that play hard, and we gotta continue to do that, and hopefully improve as we go down the stretch here.”

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